What is Structure in Music
What is Structure in Music? Structure, or Form, in music refers to the arrangement and order of the parts or sections of the music. The structure of a piece of music is a predetermined order of each section, and how many times it is, or is not repeated. When listening to, or playing a piece of music, it is important to know what the structure of the music is, so you can understand how the parts of the music have been put together to make the whole.
Knowing what is structure in music, and knowing the different types of musical structures or musical forms there are, can help you understand the music and break it down into smaller sections. When you know what is structure in music, then it becomes easier to anticipate what section of the music will come next.
When talking about what is structure in music, it is important to note that both structure and form can be used interchangeably. Both structure and form have the same definition – it is the unfolding of the music over time through the expansion and development of musical ideas.
When you are discussing, analyzing, or preparing to perform a piece of music, it is a good practice to know what structure is in the music. The things you need to listen or look for come under the headings of – type of structure, identify the instruments, range, role and register of the instruments in each section, phrasing in each section, ostinatos and then a diagram or graphic organizer of the overall structure. Each of these will help you to see where the music is going.
What is Structure in Music Definitions
Type of Structure
There are many different types of musical structure and form in the music you listen to. It is helpful as a musician to know what is structure in music, in the music you are either playing, studying, or listening to. Some of the most common structure in music definitions used are in the list below. Please note that this is not a complete list of every type of musical structure or musical form, but these structure in music definitions will help you start your music appreciation and music understanding journey.
When describing a section in a piece of music, it is common practice to use a capital letter for each section of the music.
Monothematic – a piece of music based on a single melodic idea. Often the melody is repeated by a different instrument each time. Ravel’s Bolero is a good example of a monothematic piece.
Binary – a piece of music with two main sections. A B OR AA BB. The Folk Song Greensleeves is a good example of Binary Form. In this song the structure used is AA BB
Ternary – a piece of music with three sections, the third section is a return to the first. A B A. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star features a simple use of ternary form. In this example of ternary form, in Guitar Tab, you can see the A section, then B section, then the return to the A section.
Rondo – a piece of music with a return to the first section with a different section in between. A B A C A. The popular classical piano composition by Beethoven, Fur Elise, is a good example of Rondo Form using the A B A C A structure
Theme and Variations – a melody that is repeated with a variation each time. The variations could be changes in note length or added ornamentation to the melody. Mozart’s version of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and 12 Variations is a great example of the musical structure of Theme and Variations.
Through Composed – a piece of music with no repeating sections. One of the most famous examples of music written using a Through Composed Structure is the rock classic from Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody.
Strophic – a piece of music with verses only. This musical structure is often used in folk and children’s songs. This example from Herman’s Hermits is another rock classic!
Song Form – a piece of music with a combination of verses and choruses, usually with an introduction, solo and coda. The song “I’m a Believer” is a good example of a typical pop song structure. It has an introduction, verse 1, chorus, verse 2, chorus, solo, half verse, chorus, chorus with a variation, and ends with a coda.
Identify the Instruments
When you are studying and analyzing a piece of music, once you have worked out what is the structure in the music, then you can delve further by closely looking at what is happening musically in each section. The first thing that you should do is to list the instruments that are performing in each section of the music.
For this, it might be easier to organize your thoughts by section, then list each instrument in that section. With your sections written down, it should be a less complicated process to discuss the role, range and register of each instrument in the music.
Role of an Instrument
There are four main roles that an instrument can perform in any section of a piece music. Please note that not every piece of music will have an instrument in each of these roles.
Melody – this is defined as a series of pitches that form a tune. The melody, or main melody, is the part that is most memorable and is often the part you sing along to in the music.
Beat – an instrument that performs the beat is often a drum or percussion instrument. The beat is defined as performing the underlying pulse of the music and helps the listener to hear the tempo of the music.
Melodic Accompaniment – the melodic accompaniment is performed by any pitched instrument that is not performing the melody but plays along and supports the melody. For example, if there was someone singing, and a guitar strumming the chords, then the guitar would be the melodic accompaniment and the melody would be sung by the vocalist.
Rhythmic Accompaniment – these are any instrument that performs with and supports the beat. These could be like a tambourine or shaker that plays a rhythmic pattern to accompany the drum kit that is playing the beat. The bass guitar, or double bass, are also often part of the rhythm section or rhythmic accompaniment. Even though the bass plays pitched notes, they often are in time and playing on the beat with the drum kit.
Register of an Instrument
The musical definition of register is the height of the pitch that an instrument performs in. For example, a violin can perform in a higher register than the cello, and the cello can perform higher than the double bass.
To describe the register of an instrument there are two main terms that can be used – treble or bass. A simple way to remember this is to think of a piano. Roughly in the middle of the piano is a note called “Middle C”. Anything above or to the right of this note is in the treble register, and any note below or to the left is in the bass register.
Describing the register of an instrument can go even further by adding the terms upper, mid, or lower to treble or bass. For example, a melodic line performed by a piccolo could be described as played in the upper treble register. Another example could be the bassoon performing a melody or melodic line in the mid to low bass register.
Range of an Instrument
The range of an instrument can be defined as the distance between the lowest and the highest note being performed. It is like the range in a set of numbers or statistics. The range of a melody or melodic line can be described as narrow, medium, an octave, wide, very wide, or extensive. A good example of a melody that has a narrow range would be in the children’s nursery rhyme – “Hot Cross Buns”. This simple melody uses only three pitches, and therefore has a very narrow range.
A song with a medium range would be “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. This melody has a range that does not go beyond the octave. An example of an instrument with the potential for an extensive range is the piano. From its lowest note, to its highest, it spans 7 octaves!
A musical phrase can be either melodic or rhythmic. A phrase is like a small musical sentence. To begin to hear a phrase, try listening to a singer performing the melody. When they take a breath, or there is a slight pause, that is the end of the phrase. An instrumental phrase can often go longer than one that is sung, simply because the instrument, such as a violin, does not need to take a breath!
When describing a phrase first listen for how many bars in length it is, is it being performed in 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or any number of bars long? To do this you firstly need to work out the time signature. Once you know how many beats are in the bar, you can count the phrase length.
Another way to describe a phrase is by using words such as even, balanced, or symmetrical. A phrase that is even can be divided in half and each half is the same. Phrases that are uneven, unbalanced, or asymmetrical are different on either side. These types of phrases might start high, then end low, or they might be heard in the first bar of the phrase, and then there is a longer pause before the next phrase begins. This type of phrasing can be heard in a lot of blues music.
The musical definition of an ostinato is a repeated musical pattern. There are three main types of ostinatos – melodic, rhythmic, and chordal. When discussing the structure or form of a piece of music, the main thing is to concentrate on any patterns in each section of the music.
Another name for an ostinato is a riff. A riff is also defined as a repeated musical pattern. The only difference between an ostinato and a riff is that a riff is a repeated musical pattern heard and performed in popular music. Just like an ostinato there are three main types of riffs – melodic, rhythmic, and chordal.
A rhythmic ostinato is a repeated rhythmic pattern. These types of ostinatos can be performed by any instrument, either with or without pitch. More commonly though, instruments that perform a rhythmic ostinato are those without pitch and can be classified as an idiophone (instruments that are hit, shaken, or scraped to make a sound), a membranophone (instruments with a skin or membrane) or can be classified as part of the Percussion Family. Below is a good example of several rhythmic ostinato performing together in the music. Try working out each ostinato and performing it!
A melodic ostinato is a repeated melodic pattern. These types of ostinatos can be performed by any instrument with pitch. In popular music, the electric guitar or bass guitar will often perform a melodic ostinato. A great example of a melodic bass ostinato is in the song “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen. Or even the classic from Guns ‘n’ Roses – Sweet Child of Mine, has a great recurring guitar riff that can be heard many times throughout the song.
A chordal ostinato is a repeated chord progression. Some popular and common chordal ostinatos are the 12 Bar Blues and the Ice Cream Chord Change. Below is the Elvis Presley classic – Hound Dog, which is based on the 12 Bar Blues, and then the song Duke of Earl that features the Ice Cream Chord Change. Today, many pop songs are based on a four-chord progression or chordal ostinato.
Structure in Music Diagram
There are many ways to write and notate music. One way to represent the different sections of a piece of music is to use symbols for each section of the music. Below is a diagram that represents the song “I’m a Believer” performed by Smashmouth. The video and link to the song is above or click here.
Why is Structure Important in Music?
It is important to know what is structure in music for many reasons. When you understand what musical structure is, and the common framework that music is built upon, you will start to understand how to put your own music together in new and interesting ways. As a musician knowing the definition of structure and musical form, will help you anticipate what section will come next in the music.
When listening to a piece of music, just by listening to each section, and being able to discern what each section is, and the type of structure being used, is a great benefit and advantage. When you know what are form and structure in music you will be able to read the “map” of the music and be able to navigate the musical landmarks within a piece of music that you are performing, studying, or listening to.
Music Appreciation and Structure
To truly understand a piece of music, it is important to know on what framework it is constructed. Once you know the “bones” of the piece, you can work out how often a section is repeated, or if it is never repeated! As a musician, knowing what sections you need to work on, and which ones you don’t, will make the task of learning a piece for performance more efficient and easier in the long run.
Next time you listen to a piece of music, try taking note of the different sections. How many sections are there? Are any sections repeated? How many times do they repeat? Are there any rhythmic or melodic patterns in the music? Is there a variation on a recurring theme in the music? What are the smaller phrases or ostinatos that make up the larger sections?
When you are listening to your favorite song, try taking a step back and be conscious of the order and arrangement of the different parts of the music. You could even try mapping out the music as a diagram, then try comparing the overall structure to other music you listen to. Are there any similarities? What are the differences?
As a musician, in your next performance, try being aware of the different sections that make up the music. How can you add variety to your performance? Can you repeat a section? Can you take out a repeat and add in a variation to the theme?
If you would like a copy of the Elements of Music Mind Maps used in this blog post, click here her for your FREE download.
Until next time
Julia from Jooya